Lester Brown


photo of a man

Lester Brown started his career as a farmer. At the age of 14, he and a brother rented some land, bought an old tractor, and began growing tomatoes. The small enterprise eventually grew to become New Jersey’s largest tomato producer.

Brown has maintained his concern with feeding people ever since. As a young man working in the foreign services division of the US Department of Agriculture, he focused attention on the intersection between food and population issues. In 1974, he founded the Worldwatch Institute, the first research organization dedicated to global environmental issues. The author of more than 50 books, he has helped pioneer the concept of sustainable development. The Journal recently got a chance to speak with him from his office at the Earth Policy Institute.

In your book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, you say that climate stabilization and population stabilization have to be among our top priorities in the coming decades. How are those two things linked?

Well, if we can’t stabilize the population, we aren’t going to be able to stabilize the climate. The interesting thing about population growth is the extent to which a relatively educated public is overlooking it as a problem.

I remember writing a book, I think it was in 1974, called By Bread Alone. It was written for the World Food Conference held in Rome that year. And the Embassy of Tanzania contacted us and wanted to know if they could get a copy, because it had been requested by President Nyerere. So I sent him the book. And in the book, I had a statement that said that probably not two political leaders in a hundred understand that a three percent annual rate of population growth leads to a twenty-fold increase in a century. And after he read the book, he wrote back and he said he was particularly taken with that point. And he said that however many leaders there were before, there was now one more. He was a very intellectual leader. But his capacity to translate his ideas into meaningful programs and realities was not the best. He was an impressive statesman and a leader for his time.

Why do you think the issue is overlooked?

It’s like soil erosion, or rising CO2 levels – they happen just a little bit at a time. It’s not the increase in CO2 this year, or the increase in population this year, or the soil erosion, the loss of top soil, this year that is going to do us in. It’s the cumulative effect of these trends. And it’s true for so many of the problems we are facing: falling water tables, melting glaciers, and you can go down the list. They are all sort of gradual, though they may cross a tipping point, and something very dramatic may happen, like when you deplete an aquifer and the wells go dry, or when overfishing leads to a precipitous drop in the catch or a collapse of the fishery.

People often say, well, why should we worry about the population, because in the places where the population is occurring, they are poor people; they don’t consume very much. That is true. And then people go on to say the problem is us because we are consuming so much of the world’s resources. And that point has merit. At the same time, we have to recognize that population growth in these countries is a local issue, and population outgrows the sustainable yield of forests or the number of livestock that grasslands can sustain. Or as populations begin to outgrow the area of cultivatable land, they start to move up the mountains and plow land that should never be plowed. Or they are over-pumping their aquifers and their water supply is gradually disappearing. That is where I see the population issue having its greatest effect – it’s in the developing countries, and indeed, that’s where almost all of it is occurring now. It’s in the relationship between local communities and their life-support systems: their forests, their grasslands, their soils, their aquifers.

At one point in the book, you write that “Poverty, like wealth, is inherited.” What do you mean by that?

Well, you and I have, in global terms, incomes that are well above average. And probably the principal reason for that is that we were both born in this country. If we had been born in Ethiopia or Bangladesh, the odds of our having the incomes we now have would be pretty slim. So culture and society and the conditions of the society into which we were born have a lot to do with our consumption levels.

One of the other interesting and disturbing sides of the population issue is that if you look at the top 20 countries on the list of failing states, of those 20, as I recall, 17 have population growth rates that range from just over two percent a year to 3.6 percent a year. That 3.6 percent rate, I think, is in Yemen, where the average number of children per woman is in excess of seven – that’s the average. And what’s happening is that whereas some societies might withstand the first doubling of population – you know, from 10 million to 20 million – the second doubling – from 20 million to 40 million – really begins to create some problems – problems that political leaders are simply no longer able to manage.

What kind of problems?

Food shortages, water shortages. Again, if you look at the top 20 countries on the list of failing states, a large share of those countries are on the UN World Food Program’s lifeline. They are being sustained by the substantial provision of food through these aid programs.

You talked about how many of the acute problems with population are in poor nations. But some people say that the US is experiencing unsustainable population growth. Do you agree?

A one percent growth in population is unsustainable over the long term. And at some point any population growth will be unsustainable. It’s interesting, because virtually every other industrial country has now reached population stability: Their population is either increasing slowly or decreasing slowly. None of them have growth rates like that of the US.

I did a book in 1978 called The 29th Day. The book took its title from a riddle that the French use to teach children exponential growth. The question is: You have a lily pond, and the first day it has a one lily pad, and the second day two, and the third day four, and it keeps doubling. If it fills up on the 30th day, when is it half full? … The 29th day, obviously. But it’s sort of counterintuitive, because we don’t think in exponential terms, we think in linear terms.

If we do think in linear terms, how do we get political leaders to think in exponential terms and really confront this challenge head on?

That’s the question. Some countries get it. The Chinese began running through the numbers close to 30 years ago, and they began looking at the future. Throughout the third quarter of the last century, the Chinese were saying, “Population is not a problem.” They were spouting the basic Marxist belief that more hands mean more workers and more output, so there’s no point in worrying about population growth. Then sometime in the ‘70s, they began to realize that if their population growth trends continued, they were going to be in deep, deep trouble. First they raised the age of marriage to 26 years old. Then they went to a two-child family. And eventually they realized that was not enough and they were going to have to do even more, so they went to the one-child family. As a result of that, today China has only 1.3 billion people. Otherwise, they might have 1.9 billion or even more than 2 billion people.

We can see the kind of pressure that they are putting on resources, their own resources in particular, but also global resources. And if you imagine an increasingly affluent two billion Chinese, you can begin to see what it translates into.

Which gets back to the issue of consumption. You write that the goal of Plan B is to stabilize global population to around eight billion people by 2040. But eight billion people can’t live as North Americans do. Do you think people in this country are ready for the sorts of changes in lifestyle you’re recommending?

They are probably more ready now than they were a couple of years ago. There seems to be a growing sense that our future is not going to be a simple extrapolation of the past. Throughout the modern era, if you wanted to check the next decade, you just looked at the last two or three decades and extrapolated into the future. That gave us a pretty good sense of where we’d be. But I don’t think we can do that anymore. And I think there’s a growing sense that we’re not going to be able to do that – it’s slowly beginning to sink in.

I see various manifestations of that. The shift to smaller cars that we’ve seen in the last couple of years. That was initiated by the rise in gasoline prices. I think climate change is beginning to affect people. And the extraordinary success of the movement to ban new coal-fired power plants in this country over the last 18 to 24 months is, I think, another manifestation of the realization it is not going to be a simple extrapolation of the past.

One of the big challenges we are facing is how to satisfy basic human needs without destroying the economy’s support systems.

A few months back, I read an article in Newsweek on energy and climate change. And at the end of the first paragraph, there was a sentence that said, “Continuing with business-as-usual is beginning to read like the end of the world.”

And that struck me – not because it was a revelation for me – but because someone in a major periodical was acknowledging that reality. I think it’s going to take a lot more, a much broader realization that we are in trouble. The big question is: Will we realize how much trouble we are in and be able to make the needed course corrections before we run out of time?

“Nature establishes the thresholds. We know the clock is running out, but we don’t know how much time is left.”

You dub that course correction “the mobilization to save civilization.” What does that mobilization look like?

Well, it looks a little bit like some of the things we are seeing now. Take renewable energy, for example. Two years ago, when Plan B 3.0 was going to press, most of the gains in renewable energy were marginal and incremental. And now, suddenly, we’ve seen things moving toward a quantum jump.

Example: Texas. For the last century, Texas has been a leading exporter of oil within the United States. It is now the leading generator of electricity from wind, having passed California three years ago. Texas now has 8,000 megawatts of wind-generated capacity in operation, several thousand more in construction, and a whole bunch in the planning stages. It adds up to 45,000 MW of wind-generated capacity. Think 45 coal-fired power plants. When those wind farms are completed – and we are talking years, not decades – they will generate more electricity than the 24 million people living in Texas can consume. And it’s happened almost overnight.

It reminds me a bit of a question Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker, asked Amory [Louvins] when she was doing a profile of him. She asked Amory about thinking outside the box. And he said, “There is no box.”

There is no box. Yet on a planet floating in space there are limits. And the population question is a metaphor for the fact that there are limits. Do you think people are beginning to understand that?

Not nearly enough. We now have people like Jeff Sachs [director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University], for example, who didn’t used to talk about population who now hardly ever gives a public address without mentioning it. So people in key positions are beginning to focus on it, but not enough. And Paul Ehrlich, of course, has been talking about it for close to 40 years now.

So how do you go from not enough to enough?

It’s a combination of things. It’s learning how to run an economy and provide basic goods and services without using a lot of resources. I talk about the new materials economy in Plan B 3.0. It’s everything from Caterpillar rebuilding all of its diesel engines that come back. They take them completely apart, replace all the worn parts with new ones, and then put them right back on the market again, because the engine blocks last forever, essentially. It’s turned out to be a very profitable venture.

That’s one example. Another is simply eliminating throwaway products. Just ban them. Use all refillable beverage containers, for example, and you see an enormous drop in energy use there.

Or consider lighting. When you go from an incandescent bulb to a compact fluorescent bulb, you drop electricity use by 75 percent. If you go then to an LED, which is not economical for most uses, you reduce electricity not by 75 percent, but by 90 percent. If you then integrate LEDs with motion sensors, with dimmers that adjust the intensity of light in an office or a home depending upon how much outside light is available, we’ve got a 95 percent reduction, and at this point are using 5 percent as much electricity as we were a few years back. When you think about it, it’s pretty crude that the lights in my office have the same intensity today as they will at midnight tonight – that’s pretty crude engineering.

It’s all doable. With the LEDs, we are probably five years away from them being economically competitive for basic household use. CFLs last longer than incandescents, and LEDs last longer than that. If you put an LED in your home today, and you are having a baby, that baby will be in college before you have to replace the bulb.

Because the technology is available, does that put any pressure on the environmental movement or the progressive movement to speak more about the here and the now instead of the future? As a campaigner at a leading environmental organization said to me the other day, we need to stop postponing this progress.

That’s right. In many cases, it’s probably now or never. We are in a race between tipping points, between tipping points in natural systems and tipping points in political systems. Can we phase out coal-fired power plants fast enough to save the Greenland Ice Sheet and at least the larger glaciers in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau? Can we arrest the deforestation of the Amazon before the rainforest dries out and becomes vulnerable to natural fire?

The problem we face is that we don’t know how much time we have left because nature establishes the thresholds. And nature is therefore the timekeeper, but we can’t see the clock. We know the clock is running out, but we don’t know how much time is left.

—Interview conducted and condensed by Jason Mark

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